PITTSBURGH — The mime playing air guitar would have no comment. Anything less than a 162-win pace probably would have disappointed some fawning media members. And Donald Trump is so delusional and consistently wrong that he still probably thinks ownership is doing a “rotten job.”
But all the Cubs stationed at Camp Joe Maddon in Arizona would have taken this heading into the All-Star break: 53 wins and a seven-game lead in the National League Central.
The Cubs still need a vacation after all the karaoke jams, zoo animals, “Embrace The Target” sloganeering and a 24-games-in-24-days endurance test that showed this team won’t get an automatic bid into the playoffs.
“We did talk about it in spring training, the importance of getting off to a good start, and we did,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We have, I think, more than stubbed our toe. We probably sprained our toe. We want to avoid that, but it happens to a lot of teams. This is our time to understand adversity and how to fight through it.
“We’ll come out of it on the other side better for it.”
The Texas Rangers and New York Mets will be waiting after the All-Star break, and a few days chilling by the pool won’t magically cure the Cubs before they regroup at Wrigley Field. But this team needed a win to snap a five-game losing streak and avoid the sweep that would have left the resilient Pirates (46-43) only 5 1/2 games out in what’s become a much tighter three-team race with the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.
“We’re aware,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 4-for-5 on Sunday afternoon after almost hitting for the cycle on Saturday night. “You try not to look at it, but you know where you’re at (in the standings). No one stresses about it.
“This is what it is: Every game now in the NL Central, especially versus the Cardinals and Pirates, is a playoff game from here on out. We set ourselves up to be in a good position the second half to do what we want to do.”
That revolves around pitching, and the Cubs have gone 0-for-10 in quality starts in July. A recharged lineup gave John Lackey a two-run lead before he threw his first pitch Sunday and a 5-4 lead by the fourth inning, yet the veteran pitcher still labored through a no-decision and walked off the mound with two runners on and no outs in the seventh.
This three-game series wasn’t pretty for a Cubs team that will send seven players to the All-Star Game. The pitching staff gave up 26 runs, the defense committed five errors, a young team made multiple mental mistakes and the Pirates beat Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and $155 million lefty Jon Lester.
“Our whole staff kind of feels that (pressure),” Arrieta said. “We’ve been in kind of a lull for the past two weeks. If our guys are healthy — which we are, as far as the staff is concerned — I like our ability to go out there and pitch better.
“There are times where the guy on the other side is going to beat us on the mound. Our offense will have those nights. But if we get our guys back in the second half — and keep swinging it — we’ll be just fine.”
The Cubs raced out to a 25-6 start with dominant pitching and contributions up and down the lineup and all over the roster. The offense generated 15 hits in Game 88, with Matt Szczur delivering a pinch-hit double in the eighth inning and scoring the go-ahead run from second on Kris Bryant’s two-out line drive into left field.
“It’s nice to go into the All-Star break with a little less stress,” Bryant said. “But I think if you told us at the beginning of the year we would be in this position, any of us would take it.”
An under-siege bullpen got the last nine outs, with Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon (14th save) shutting down the Pirates at a time when Maddon’s had trouble figuring out which buttons to push.
Maddon’s endless array of “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts don’t seem quite as fresh when the Cubs are losing so much ground and dropping series to playoff contenders like the Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, Cardinals, Mets and Pirates within the last month.
But this is exactly what the Cubs asked for, painting the bull’s-eye on their chest.
“We’ve responded really well,” Maddon said, wearing his “Embrace The Target” T-shirt. “More recently, we’ve done it with less than our normal group. I do believe fatigue entered into the equation right now, which happens to everybody. But it got exceptionally difficult now with a lot of young guys playing often. Our starters just hit a little bit of a wall.
“And everybody’s coming after us hard, man. Everybody is — and I love it.”